Charlotte has enough housing for moderate-income people. Low income? That’s different

Advocates call for affordable housing action

Activists call for more action on affordable housing in front of Charlotte's Government Center on Monday, Aug. 28, 2017.
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Activists call for more action on affordable housing in front of Charlotte's Government Center on Monday, Aug. 28, 2017.

Charlotte is facing a major shortage of affordable housing units for people with very low incomes, according to a report City Council heard Monday – though the city does have enough units for people with modest incomes.

That finding surprised some on City Council, who often discuss how to include “workforce” housing for people making moderate salaries, such as nurses and teachers, in new developments.

“I’m kind of startled,” said council member Ed Driggs. “I thought the need extended all the way up to workforce housing. … But clearly the deficit is concentrated .”

After last year’s protests and riots following the Keith Scott shooting, City Council promised to accelerate its affordable housing goals: Instead of creating 5,000 affordable units in five years, the city would do so in three.

“One of the main priorities for the City Council this year has been to increase affordable housing,” said Mayor Jennifer Roberts. But the report they heard Monday suggests that even if the city meets its goal, it might not have much of an impact where it’s needed most, at the lowest end of the income scale.

Housing prices have shot up in Charlotte much faster than wages over the past few years, driven by a huge influx of population. The average rent in Charlotte is about $1,082, up 7 percent from a year ago. Median home sale prices hit $236,000 in July, up nearly 10 percent from last year.

“It’s a crisis,” said the Rev. Ray McKinnon, a commissioner for the Charlotte Housing Authority. He spoke at a gathering of housing advocates outside the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center. “You can’t build this city on the backs of people and then push them out.”

Sunshine Cunningham, a resident at the Twin Oaks apartments, described waking up to a note on her door saying she had 30 days to leave because the apartments had been sold and were being redeveloped.

“We’re losing our homes,” she said. “When was the last time you woke up to that? … When you get thrown out, then what?”

Figures show the city is on track to reach its 5,000-unit goal, with some 2,219 units finished or in the pipeline – meaning Charlotte is more than 40 percent of the way there. But that won’t solve the problem.

“There is no silver bullet,” said Pamela Wideman, the city’s director of housing and neighborhoods. The city could explore steps such as streamlining permits for affordable housing developments, increasing the size of the city’s Housing Trust Fund and acquiring privately owned, existing affordable housing before it’s redeveloped to mitigate the problem.

The city’s 2,219-unit affordable housing figure includes more than just newly built units. In addition to 412 new apartment units, that number also counts 305 rehabilitated, existing single-family houses and 220 apartments, as well as 326 down payment assistance payments for homebuyers. The affordable units in the total include 528 future apartments, many of which won’t be completed for years.

The “workforce housing” affordable units developers sometimes include voluntarily in new projects are reserved for renters making roughly 80 percent of the area’s median income – in the neighborhood of $45,000 a year. Many of the older apartments in Charlotte fall into this category naturally, and Charlotte doesn’t have a shortage of those units, according to the figures presented Monday.

The biggest need – a gap of more than 21,000 units – is housing for very low income renters, those making 50 percent or less of the area’s median income. At 30 percent of the area’s median income, a worker would be making roughly $16,800 – a bit more than minimum wage for a full-time worker. People with that income can only afford roughly $400 a month or so and still meet the typically used “affordability” benchmark of spending 30 percent or less of their income on housing.

“That’s where you see the gap,” said Christopher Kizzie of Enterprise Community Partners, a consultant working with the city. And those units are usually more expensive to build.

City Council voted 5-4 last month against a plan to shift $18.5 million in funding for renovations at Bojangles’ Coliseum and Ovens Auditorium. Council member Ed Driggs had proposed spending tourism tax dollars on that project and freeing up the $18.5 million to build more affordable housing. Roberts said Monday that plan could still be considered at some point.

City Council is also considering a $20.8 million plan to finance 769 affordable units over the next few years. If they approve that plan, that would leave the city’s Housing Trust Fund nearly tapped out until after the November 2018 elections, when voters will consider another bond issue to fund more affordable housing.

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo